The audience cheers every choreographed dance step as Madonna runs through her ‘broke, starving and homeless’ origin story and enthusiastically snogs a topless dancer.
The first time Madonna addresses the audience at the O2 Arena – three songs into the opening date of her Celebration tour – it’s to express astonishment. “I’m pretty damn surprised I made it this far,” she offers. “And I mean that on many levels.”
Well, quite: it’s a statement you could take in a number of ways. It might refer to the life-threatening health scare that necessitated the postponement of her current tour, and which seems to have affected the audience’s reaction to tonight’s performance: they cheer every choreographed dance step she undertakes as if it’s a victory against the odds. It might refer to the improbability of Madonna becoming the biggest-selling female recording artist of all time, given her humble beginnings.
The first part of the retrospective show is consumed by what you might call her origin story: the show’s MC, Rupaul’s Drag Race winner Bob the Drag Queen, makes reference to her arrival in New York from her native Michigan with $35 to her name; her performance of Holiday is preceded by a set-piece recreation of fabled Manhattan club the Paradise Garage, with Madonna insufficiently famous to gain entrance; she plays distorted guitar during a ramshackle version of Burning Up, as she apparently did on stage at CBGB when she was still a member of a band called the Breakfast Club. Meanwhile, technical issues with the sound – you wouldn’t want to be backstage when she gets hold of whoever’s responsible – mean Madonna has to fill time, which she does, rather entertainingly, with stories from her “broke, starving, homeless” early years on the Lower East Side, living in a rehearsal studio without a bathroom: “I would actually date men because they had a shower! Yes – blow jobs for showers!”
Or it might refer to the fact that Madonna is still here, still filling arenas and stadiums long after most of her 80s pop peers have either died (there’s a brief tribute to Prince later in the show, soundtracked by the guitar solo he contributed to Like a Prayer, but which didn’t make the released version of the song) or are operating in vastly reduced circumstances. That said, her longstanding position as what Wikipedia calls ”the Queen of Pop” has looked decidedly shaky in recent years.
It’s more than a decade since Madonna released a single that made the US Top 10; tracks you might reasonably expect to be successful – a 2022 rejig of Material Girl with rapper Saucy Santana, this year’s admittedly wan collaboration with Sam Smith, Vulgar – have barely scraped the charts. Her last tour, the ill-fated 2019-2020 succession of theatre shows, treated her back catalogue as if it were an encumbrance: it largely ignored her hits in favour of 11 songs from her coolly received album, Madame X. The Celebration show seeks to redress the balance, reminding the audience of the songs that made her famous in the first place.
The section dealing with her life draws to a close with one of the show’s most striking moments: Live to Tell recast as a eulogy for those killed by the Aids epidemic, Madonna floating above the audience on a platform as vast images of New York nightlife luminaries lost to the disease – Keith Haring, Arthur Russell, Robert Mapplethorpe – are projected around her. Thereafter, you could argue that the show loses its sense of narrative thread – you’d be hard-pushed to describe a segue that jams together Human Nature, Crazy for You and Justify My Love with readings from the Book of Revelation as anything other than puzzling – but what it lacks in clarity, it makes up for with its setlist.
For all the biblical references, quotations from Gurdjieff flashing across the big screens and occasional diversions into something approaching the realm of the deep cut – Madonna’s daughter, Mercy, plays piano on a version of Bad Girl, a single from 1992’s Erotica, but not a massively successful one – what the Celebration tour is really engaged in is the simple business of clobbering the audience with hits. You could occasionally question the hits she choses to clobber them with – it’s questionable whether anyone attends a Madonna gig in the desperate hope of hearing her version of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina – but, for the most part she’s on very safe ground indeed.
There’s a witty recreation of a drag ball for Vogue. She performs Hung Up in the midst of writhing topless female dancers, one of whom she enthusiastically cops off with at the song’s climax. You could see the Celebration tour as a capitulation, an artist in her 60s finally admitting her history is what really matters. Equally, you could view it as Madonna playing to her strengths: as Like a Virgin and Ray of Light boom out over the O2, those strengths seem very strong indeed.